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  • bhouse05

Writers by night

More than one kind of writer

I’ve been writing since I was in high school. Short stories at first, then longer narratives came along. College and the desire not to starve to death intervened and I found myself in law school trying to make sure I could earn a living without joining the Army which was the other option political science majors who did not get in to law school had on their plate in the 70’s. I resumed writing for pleasure as soon as the bar exam was behind me. Over the years I have managed to get some of my work published. Like most writers I started with magazine articles, then short stories and finally, when I was in my fifties, made my way into publishing books. I have now published five books and have written two more, one of which I hope to publish in the next few years. The other may never see the light of day. That is the life of a writer. We create, we anguish over our stories. We fall in and out of love with our work. It goes in the file and stays for a while. Sometimes for days, other times the story will sit there hidden away for years. Writing is a lot of fun for me. Editing is torture but it is perhaps the most important part of the craft since that is where the polish to the stone occurs. Any writer who is serious about their work sits down and writes, and re-writes, edits, trashes, asks other readers for critique, starts over and over and eventually declares the work finished or at least as finished as its ever going to be in this lifetime. That’s what being a writer is all about.

I have had a few people ask if I want to be a “real writer.” By that I think they mean a writer who is famous and makes a lot of money. I am always polite when that question comes my way and generally deflect away from the obvious insult by changing the subject or just gently replying I am a real writer.

But it is a question worth exploring – what makes someone a writer?

The answer should be obvious. Anyone who writes is a writer. Now whether the writer is any good is entirely subjective. I have never been able to convince the book editors back east in New York that they should buy my work. Most of them are in their thirties, graduates of private eastern colleges with parents who sponsor their lifestyle. I am generalizing with perhaps some hyperbole but if you look at literary agents and editors resumes you will see I am not missing the mark by much. Why people like that would shy away from a mid-60’s lawyer from Kentucky who writes across multiple genres that does not include vampires or zombies is understandable. The fact that my work has only been published by smaller regional publishing houses does not make me a lesser writer. My work is simply appreciated by a different audience.

That being said there are some distinct categories of authors at least from the publishing house perspective. Here they are-

Big Five authors – these are writers who are published by one of the major publishing houses like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Macmillan, Hachette Livre and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. These are the writers who receive the large advances and huge promotions for their books. Those writers who are lucky enough to score a deal with one of these companies will make some serious money. It doesn’t mean their work is worth a damn. It does mean someone thinks their work will sell or can reworked to sell. Writers like John Irving, John Grisham, Coleen Hoover (all big sellers), Cormac McCarthy (like scotch whiskey an acquired taste) and Thomas Pynchon (college English professors love him but his work is unreadably dense) are examples of those kinds of writers. So are ex-Presidents who write their memoirs. So are former princes who write their stories about being mistreated. Add to that ex-ballplayers who cannot string five words together on paper but have a ghostwriter to go with their name and you begin to get some sense of what is going on here. Publishing houses are not literary critics. They are marketing firms. They care little to nothing at all about quality. It’s about the money they can make by selling copies.

Indie authors – These are writers who are published by small publishing houses which pay small advances if any and have much less ability to market. I have published one book as an indie writer and even though the marketing was small compared to the Big Five it was still invaluable in getting my book out there. Regional authors who write geographically defined works are often found at Indie presses. Emerging writers, (that would be me at the time) start out at Indie presses. Great writers have too. Even Hemingway first published as an Indie writer.

Self-published authors – Amazon blew the door wide open for writers with no agent to get their work out there. Amazon is to an independent writer what space in an art gallery is to a painter or a time slot at a bar is to a singer. Writers are artists who want a place to exhibit their work and Amazon is that place. Barnes & Noble is too, as well as a host of Indie websites but Amazon dwarfs them all. That’s why all writers, even the big names, want their work on Amazon. It is simply the largest and most widely used shopping platform on earth and we all want to be there.

With those as the basic three categories of publishing for writers we can now ask, are there different classes of writers? Well, yes. Published and unpublished. Beyond that I would argue there is no real creative difference. Some work simply sells better than others whether due to marketing effect or the talent of the writer or the interest of a pool of readers, but all writers are writing and working to put their art out there. Sometimes a person will come up to me and tell me they are a writer too, but they just haven’t gotten their story down on paper yet. Their book is “in their head.” Those people are not writers. Dreamers maybe but not writers.

Here are some writers whose work I think is top tier, but most people have never heard of them: Wallace Steadman, Jim Harrison, Colm Toibin just to name a few. All three were/are some of the very best but Steadman had to keep his day job as a college professor, Harrison lived in a cabin courtesy of a sponsor most of the time and Toibin still has faculty positions. All three are literary giants judged by the quality of their work. Then there is Colleen Hoover. Just who is she? Well, she’s from Texas, a small-town person who started writing because she loved to write. No one wanted her work. Rejected over and over again. She writes what she wants to write. Multiple genres. No agent wanted her. The big publishing houses shunned her, but the reading public loved her. Word of her great stories began circulating on the internet. Her sales picked up and then the big publishing houses came calling. As of 2020 she has sold more than 20 million books. Let that sink in. 20 million books. If her average royalty is just three dollars per book this lady from Texas has earned 60 million dollars. Hemingway never earned anywhere close to that in his lifetime even when adjusted for real dollars.

The biggest selling author of fiction in the English language in history? Agatha Christie who has over 2 BILLION books sold to date and counting. No one has made a real Hemingway book movie in years. Dame Agatha has had two of her books made into feature films in the last three years and more are on the way, and she’s been dead since 1976. The public wants what the public wants and what it wants is a good mystery.

All of the writers above pursued their craft. Some made more money than others, but they all sat at a desk somewhere and let their imagination flow.

That is what a writer is.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my keyboard. The creative juices are flowing.

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